Saturday, 20 August 2011

Strike forces cancellation of opening fixtures

A meeting between the Association for Spanish footballers (AFE) and the league (LFP) today reached no agreement on the players’ strike planned for the first two rounds of La Liga fixtures. As a result this weekend’s games will definitely not go ahead, whilst discussions will continue next week to try and salvage next weekend’s games.

The AFE announced their intention on strike on August 11 after a number of Spanish clubs failed to pay their players last season. According to José Luis Rubiales, President of the AFE, the amount of unpaid wages to players totalled €50m last season.

Rubiales wants the league to supply a find which will guarantee all unpaid players’ wages, however as of yet the LFP have only agreed to a fund in the region of €10m.

Part of the problem is seen as the lack of a sporting sanction for clubs who seek the protection of voluntary administration. Twenty-two clubs in Spain’s first two divisions have passed through administration of the past few seasons and four (Real Zaragoza, Racing Santander, Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis) will start this season in the Primera whilst in administration.

The most ludicrous example of the failings in the system is that of Zaragoza who failed to pay their players and other clubs for transfer fees last season and shortly after securing Primera Liga status on the final day of the season protected themselves by going into administration. That meant they couldn’t be docked points or relegated for not paying players wages, they didn’t have to pay other creditors to the club such as local businesses either and (here comes the most infuriating part) were still allowed to sign other players over the summer, bringing in five players whilst wages and fees are still owed to players and clubs.

Talks regarding a resolution will continue tomorrow however with many players signalling that the strike could be extended if no solution is found it appears that finally the financial mismanagement of so many clubs in Spain is coming home to roost.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Mixed fortunes for Spanish sides in Europa League

A victory, a draw and a defeat on Thursday evening wasn’t the greatest start to the Europa League for the Spanish sides involved, but all three will still harbour hopes of making it to the group stages next week.

Athletic Bilbao 0 Trabzonspor 0

Athletic suffered a disappointing draw in the first competitive match of Marcelo Bielsa’s reign. Things appeared to be going Athletic’s way when as early as the seventh minute the Turkish side were reduced to 10 men; Burak Yilmaz seeing red for a kick out at Iker Muniain.

Fernando Llorente had already gone agonisingly close in the first minute but it was to be a frustrating evening for the Spanish striker as he missed a host of chances. Athletic were also denied by some fine goalkeeping by Tolga Zengin who saved brilliantly from Markel Susaeta and Llorente in the second-half.

Trabzonspor remained dangerous on the break and Paulo Henrique nearly gave them an away goal but his delicate chip over Gorka Iraizoz landed
just wide.

Hannover 96 2 Sevilla 1

Sevilla also face an uphill struggle to get through to the group stages after losing 2-1 in Germany. Jan Schlaudraff put the home side in front after only five minutes with a calm low finish beyond Andres Palop.

Sevilla responded well and Alvaro Negredo nearly had them level on the half hour but Robert Zieler in the Hannover goal tipped his long-range deflected shot onto the post. The 2007 winners did get the crucial away goal minutes later after neat play from Jorge Coke and Negredo left Freddie Kanoute free to fire into an empty net. However, just as Sevilla were looking comfortable they fell behind again when a fine Hannover move was rounded off by a sweet finish from Schlaudraff, this time low across Palop into the far corner.

In a second-half of few chances Hannover’s Sergio Pinto came closest with a shot from distance but both sides seemed content with a scoreline
that leaves all very much to play for in Seville next week.

Atletico Madrid 2 Vitória Guimarães 0

In the only positive result for Spanish sides in Europe this week, Atleti took a firm grip of their tie with Vitória after two goal from Elias in the second-half.

The Brazilian who had been linked with Porto this week as part of the Falcao transfer showed he could have a big role to play at the Calderón this season with two fine finishes, the first a powerful header at the back post and the second a cool side-foot from the edge of the box. Both goals were set up by Adrián who again demonstrated that although he may lack a killer instinct in front of goal he can play a vital role in linking the play up front.

Among the other positives for Gregorio Manzano was the performance of Gabi in the midfield who already looks very comfortable in his new surroundings and also combined well with Thiago.

However, there may be some concern that the goals didn’t arrive until Vitória had been reduced to 10 men after Joao Paulo was sent off for a wild challenge on Adrián. The exclusion of Diego Forlan from the side could also be significant with the Uruguayan set to follow David De Gea and Kun Aguero as high-profile departures from Atleti this summer.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Positives for both sides but Messi decisive in the Supercopa

Four months on from the Champions League semi-final fixtures of last season, Barcelona may have again emerged as victors in the Supercopa and Real may have again seen the red mist and consequently red cards, but this was a very different two-legged encounter.

Both sides have served up a mixture of the good, the extraordinarily good and inevitably the ugly in the past four days but both can also reflect positively on two games that restored the reputation of these two sides as the two best footballing teams in the world.

That we saw two high-scoring, free-flowing games was down to two principal factors. Fristly, Jose Mourinho realised (and hopefully will continue to do so) that his idea of the “bloque bajo” that he implemented successfully with Inter against Barcelona is unlikely to succeed again against Pep Guardiola’s side with any team over two-legs, but even more so when he has an incredible array of attacking talent that can hurt Barca at the other end of the pitch. Secondly, of course for all that this mattered – we saw just how much at the melee at the end – it was the Supercopa, a competition which when you win is a fantastic springboard and when you lose is a pre-season friendly.

In both of these ties Real have taken the game to Barca in a way they didn’t in any of their five matches last season. And it could have worked, it should have worked, at least at home where they were rampant in the first-half only to somehow still be behind to a moment of brilliance from David Villa and a slip from Pepe (who we will get to shortly).

They did a Barca to Barca, pressing intensely high up the field to pen the European champions into their own half and at times succeeding in winning the ball high up the field.

Ronaldo finally scored at the Nou Camp, Benzema finally scored in against Barca, but the fact that Mourinho is still to win in the Nou Camp exemplifies certain flaws that still remain when Real match up against Barcelona.

Pepe was lauded for his impact as part of an athletic and combative midfield three in the games against Barca towards the end of last season until an untimely, if characteristic, lunge on Dani Alves saw him see red and his side’s chances fall apart in the Champions League. However, time and again he has been caught out when playing at centre-back against Guardiola’s side. In particular Leo Messi playing as a ‘false nine’ causes the Portuguese international all sorts of problems. The dual problem for Pepe and indeed his colleagues in the centre-back position over the past couple of seasons were demonstrated by Barca’s first and third goals last night.

On the first goal Messi drops very deep, cuts inside and delivers the most fantastic through ball for Andres Iniesta to run onto. Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho are marking no one because they can’t. They are caught between pushing right up and giving Messi endless amount of room to play passes into, as shown by the fact Iniesta’s goal last night was highly reminiscent of David Villa’s two goals in the 5-0 Clasico last year, or sitting very deep and allowing Messi, Xavi and Iniesta room in front of them to unpick the lock.

The other problem for Pepe playing against Messi is that the Argentine’s movement is simply too good for him. In Barca’s third and winning goal, Pepe has Messi in front of him and thinks he has him covered but as the ball is pulled back Messi has pulled off the back and found space to hammer home.

If Pepe’s position and discipline is becoming questionable in these fixtures then Marcelo’s actions have made him a liability that Mourinho simply cannot trust any longer in the Clásicos. The Brazilian got away with one fly-kick on Messi (again not too dissimilar from his treatment on Pedro last season) but caused the huge melee at the end of the game with a cynical lunge on Cesc Fabregas.

Fabio Coentrao demonstrated last night that Real now have a more competent left-back and disciplined player at the club and the Portuguese should now be the obvious choice in that position.

However, and this is should be the most serious point to come out of last night and the weekend’s fixtures. Nothing in Marcelo’s behaviour gives the Barcelona fans the right to chant monkey noises at the Brazilian, just as those at the Bernabeu should be slammed for making the same chants at Marcelo’s compatriot Dani Alves.

Overall this was a huge missed opportunity for Real. Whilst Barca’s pre-season has been a stuttering one with the odd defeat and players arriving late in the transfer window, Real’s preparation for these two games was perfect. They won every game, had bought their players early and had them acclimatised and even started pre-season training a week earlier than the azulgrana. Moreover, of the side that Barca started at the Bernabeu six had played in summer tournaments to Real’s one. Madrid were fitter and it showed in both games but that brings us nicely to the positives for Barcelona.

The greatest asset of a champion is not knowing when they are beaten and Barca demonstrated their winning mentality in spades last night. When Benzema equalised with seven minutes remaining last night there looked like only one winner, even Guardiola didn’t think his side could win:

“To be honest before the final I didn’t think we could win”,he said.

But despite their “lack of legs” as Pep described it they (and arguably more accurately he) conjured up the response that should no longer surprise us but still continues to amaze.

On a night when the two best teams in the world played like the two best teams in the world one man still stood out by some distance. In one evening Messi has managed to turn the debate in the Spanish press from he is nothing without Xavi and Iniesta that dominated only weeks ago during the Copa America to the Barca are nothing without Messi lines of this morning. Of course both arguments are hyperbolic nonsense but the Argentine’s performance last night was so stunning, so decisive that the reaction is understandable.

The picture for me that stood as players and coaches from both sides fought, slapped and generally behaved like children in the final minutes, was that of Ronaldo stood hands on hips, looking rueful and with the speech bubble above his head which clearly read “if only it was for that little bastard!”

However, that Messi is brilliant is a luxury Barcelona have been aware of for some time. What really stood out in both these ties was at the other end of the field two of their generally unsung heroes were as good as anyone outside of Messi.

Victor Valdes saved them time and again in the Bernabeu and did so again when palming Ronaldo’s fierce strike onto the bar with the score at 1-1 and Real in the ascendancy and in front of him, in a position many were surprised Barca didn’t strengthen in this summer, Javier Mascherano was excellent at centre-back. Once again it appears Pep’s decision might have been spot on and the Argentine captain now appears likely to play the majority of the season in the heart of the defence.

And so just when these two do get us really excited and ready to get going it appears we’ll stop as the sad facts of financial mismanagement in Spanish football are for once confronted and the players go on strike.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Six things we learned from the first El Clásico of the season

Real must stick with this approach

After a variety of approaches that didn’t meet with much success last season, the talking point pre-game was how José Mourinho would set-up. Thankfully the athletic, combative midfield three was dropped for Real’s abundance of creative talents to get a chance and got them on the front foot for much of the game.

The most interesting aspect of Real’s intention to attack Barca was that rather than the “bloque bajo” approach Mourinho took towards the end of last season, Real went after the champions, hunting in packs in a Barcelona-esque pressing game. This was particularly effective because with no Gerard Pique at centre-back Barca didn’t have the same quality of distribution from defence when put under pressure. Moreover, with Xavi Hernandez also starting on the bench there wasn’t the easy pass into midfield that Barca most often use when teams press them high up the field.

Although the scoreline doesn’t do them justice, this was Mourinho’s Real Madrid’s best showing against Barcelona in six attempts. With a bit more luck and poise in front of goal they would have won comfortably. The hope for all watching is that the Portuguese coach stands by this evening’s approach and doesn’t return to type as he did following the 5-0 defeat to Barca last November.

Real Madrid are a fantastic attacking side, ask any of the other 18 teams in La Liga for proof of that. Despite Mourinho’s pathetic lamentations surrounding refereeing decisions, last season showed they aren’t able to kick and scrap their way past Barca. By playing and pressuring they might be able to.

Sanchez could be special

Many (myself chief among them) had questioned whether Alexis Sanchez would suit Barca’s playing style, but he certainly didn’t look out of place on his first outing.

Once again Marcelo looked vulnerable against Barcelona but this time it was the Chilean’s pace, strength and skill that caused the Brazilian problems rather than Pedro’s movement cutting in from the wing.

Despite the fact that Barcelona led at half-time Sanchez like many of their forward players hadn’t been heavily involved, but in the second period, particularly as Messi started to have a greater influence on the game, Sanchez dovetailed wonderfully on occasions with the Argentine and showed a glimpse of what could be a very special understanding.

One point of note regarding his compatibility with the tiki-taka style was that a number of Barcelona players were often looking to Sanchez for the quick release and played the ball too directly at times, conceding possession cheaply in a very un-Barcelona like fashion, but also giving an insight into perhaps what Pep sees as Sanchez’s role in the side as a player that can stretch the field when sides press Barcelona.

Real may regret not laying a marker

As hinted at in point one, this seemed like a sitting duck for Real. If ever there was a chance to beat this Barca side and exorcise a few demons from last season this was it.

Real’s has been a much quieter and more settled summer. Six of Barca’s starting line-up have played in competitive tournaments this summer compared to only one is the home side’s starting XI. Moreover, Real have bought and bought early, allowing their new recruits time to settle in and they’ve had an incredible pre-season – albeit against a variety of weak opposition across three continents.

The way they started seemed to illustrate that fact even more strongly. Valdes had saved Barca on a number of occasions even before Mesut Ozil put Real in front. However, after a moment of magic from David Villa and a mistake from Pepe allowed Messi to score the wind went out of the hosts sails slightly in the second-half. Ironically Xabi Alonso’s equaliser came at a stage in the game where Barca looked most in control and despite a push in the final 20 minutes Real didn’t have the same intensity about their play in the second period which, although understandable given the nature of their pressing in the first-half, is probably necessary for the full 90minutes to beat this Barcelona side.

Without Xavi Barca really are a completely different side

I know it seems obvious and by now it should come as no surprise but even with the touch of Messi, the ball movement of Andres Iniesta and the justified hype around Thiago, Barca lacked that poise to keep the ball shuttling from side to side, forward and back in their traditional style.

Although Xavi didn’t have quite the impact expected when he came on in the second-half he was still the security blanket for many around him. The Cesc saga might now be over but Fabregas has a helluva lot to live up to if he is to be Xavi’s long-term successor.

Benzema could be the no.9 Mourinho has wanted all along

“The cat”, who Jose routinely criticised, ignored and eventually found replacements for last season has been on fire on pre-season with eight goals in seven matches. He continued that form here, not on the scoresheet but in his all-round play, setting Ozil up brilliantly for the opener and being denied by Valdes on a couple of occasions.

Benzema’s movement also allowed Real to play in a Barca-esque fashion without a designated centre-forward. That obviously helps Ronaldo wander in from the left, but also allowed Ozil to go beyond the ball and Angel Di Maria and Jose Callejon when he came on to get into dangerous positions. Indeed the period in the game when Real looked least threatening was when Gonzalo Higuian replaced the Frenchman with 10minutes remaining.

This really is the make or break season for Benzema in Madrid but so far all signs are positive that he can fulfil his undoubted potential and maybe even prove Florentino Perez right for once.

Valdes remains underrated

Even this week on the popular British radio show Fighting Talk (don’t worry this is going somewhere) the question was posed who is the most vulnerable No.1 in sport. The final panellist’s answer was Valdes, who it was claimed gets paid millions of euros to stand and watch Barcelona every week.

Even though the show is famed for its irreverence and humour more than punditry the answer did reflect the impression that still prevails that Valdes is in some way incapable or unworthy of playing for Barcelona.

The truth is he is as important as a number of the other pieces in the Barcelona puzzle, not only for his fantastic distribution but because he tends to come through in the big moments. When weeks after Barca’s triumph in the 2009 Champions League Valdes demanded the same money as Iker Casillas in his new contract he was laughed at. Yet, if anything it has been the former who has been the most consistent performer over the past two seasons.

Tonight was just the latest example that on the few occasions on which Barca are under the cosh, they certainly have someone they can rely on between the sticks.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Premier League Preview

The world’s most publicised and talked about league gets underway for another season this weekend. After another summer in which hundreds of millions have been splurged by Premier League chairmen, Kieran Canning looks at all 20 clubs’ expectations for the coming year.

The Contenders
Manchester United and Manchester City
Last season saw two major moves at the top of English football. Manchester United finally overtook Liverpool as England’s most successful club on the domestic front with their 19th title and Manchester City’s near billion pound investment reaped its first reward in the FA Cup.

After a summer in which both sides of Manchester have strengthened they should be the front runners for the silverware again this season. Unlike in recent years United have spent big in a bid to get younger, but also closer to Europe’s finest after another lesson from Barcelona in the final of the Champions League in May.

In have come Ashley Young and Phil Jones (at the now customary exorbitant price for English players), whilst David De Gea has arrived from Atlético Madrid with the huge task of replacing the retired Edwin Van Der Saar. With Danny Wellbeck and Tom Cleverley also returning from loan spells at Sunderland and Wigan respectively and expected to make an impression on the first team this season, it is hard to look beyond a 20th title for United. One weakness remains in the central midfield area where although there are a number of talented and hard-working players there is no one close to the standard of guys like Roy Keane or Paul Scholes in their hay day. Sir Alex Ferguson’s interest in Wesley Sneijder has been one of the summer’s on-going sagas and the Dutchman could be the final piece in the jigsaw for the English champions to not only retain their crown on the domestic front but also wrestle the Champions League back from Catalonia.

Across the City Sheikh Mansour’s credit card has been out and about in Europe again bringing in most notably Sergio Agüero from Atleti, but also Gael Clichy from Arsenal and Stefan Savic from Partizan Belgrade.

City’s squad is gargantuan in size and should be ready to challenge for the title, but a number of doubts remain. Firstly, team-spirit is difficult to foster at the best of times amongst a group of such huge talent and equally impressive ego. It is even harder when some of those involved go by the name of Balotelli, Tevez, Adebayor and Bellamy. The latter two have been told to find new clubs but the former two and the disruption they bring remain.

Tevez and Balotelli are also part of another issue, how will this team line-up? Agüero and David Silva should be certain starters but how do you fit in Edin Dzeko, Adam Johnson and give Tevez, should he stay, and Balotelli their share of playing time too? Especially - and this is the crux of the matter when it comes to City challenging – when you have a manager in Roberto Mancini who prefers to play in such a defensive fashion.

Sunday’s 3-2 defeat to Manchester United in the Community Shield was just the latest example of Mancini’s negativity costing his side dearly. Will the owners continue to support the Italian if that negativity costs them a title or the Champions League this season?

Whilst the attention has been focused on Manchester, in West London the almost annual Chelsea revolution under a new manager has been taking shape. Chelsea are perhaps the real wildcard in this year’s title race, with such a young , and still relatively inexperienced if impressive, young manager and a squad assembled upon aging veterans and expensive younger imports Chelsea could easily fly or fail miserably this season.

Andre Villas-Boas has been incessantly compared to Jose Mourinho both due to his Porto background but also because he was part of Mourinho’s staff when the Real Madrid manager was at Chelsea. However, Villa-Boas takes a much more aggressive, attacking approach than Mourinho ever did during his tenure at Stamford Bridge. Expect Chelsea to line up in the 4-3-3 that Villas-Boas used to such great effect at Porto last season and use the intense pressing that was such a trademark of the Portuguese Champions treble winning season.

Questions also remain on how Chelsea’s frontline will operate. The Fernando Torres/Didier Drogba conundrum was never answered by Carlo Ancelotti towards the end of last season. Both prefer to be the lone striker and appeared incompatible when paired together. Choosing who should lead the line will be the first major test of Villas-Boas’ reign. Should he get that right there is still more than enough for Chelsea to win back their title. There should still be enough gas in the tank for the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry and Frank Lampard to continue for another few seasons and Chelsea will be looking for Ramires and David Luiz to make a big impact in their second season in England.

There also greater youth in the squad in the form of Daniel Sturridge, who had a great spell whilst on loan at Bolton last season, and Oriol Romeu, the Spanish U-20 captain, who has joined from Barcelona.

European Challengers
It says everything about Arsenal’s summer that I have chosen to put them in this category rather than the one above.
This was supposed to be the summer of forgetting past unintended consequences, a period of now four closed seasons where Arsene Wenger realised his mistakes and finally went into the transfer market for experienced players to give this squad some bite. If anything, with the season only a day away, Arsenal are considerably weaker and even younger than they were as their season fell apart in May.

Cesc Fabregas’ protracted move to Barcelona seems all but done but the crying (perhaps crocodile tears now given the length of the saga) and Samir Nasri appears on the verge of joining Clichy at Manchester City. Coming in have been Gervinho from Lille and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton, but the much needed ball-winning central midfield player and Premier League-style centre-backs don’t appear to be on the horizon. Even in the past few seasons Arsenal have managed to win one trophy – their own one, The Emirates Cup. When a late Kyle Bartley own-goal deprived the Arsenal fans even that joy a fortnight ago Wenger’s troops were roundly booed from the home (not-so) faithful. If Wenger doesn’t spend his Fabregas and Nasri windfall before the end of the month he can expect more of that response from a disenfranchised base of supporters who grow louder by the transfer rumour.

Summer on Merseyside can be best summed up by the fact that I feel quite offended Kenny Dalglish hasn’t offered at least a couple of million to Beyond The Pitch for me! The Scotsman’s return to the managerial hot seat last season revitalised a side that was closer to the relegation places than the Champions League during Roy Hodgson’s disastrous six months in charge. However, Dalglish has taken to the summer transfer kitty handed down by the club’s new American owners like a kid in a sweet shop, and a very expensive sweet shop at that.

In have come Jordan Henderson (for a frankly ridiculous fee that could rise to the region of £20m), Stewart Downing for another cool £20m, Charlie Adam for £8m and Luis Enrique for a much more reasonable £6m.

Discounting the argument whether these purchases represent value for money, Liverpool should be very much back in the Champions League hunt this season. Their real coup in the transfer market came not in the summer but in January when they snapped up Luis Suarez for a very fair price. Suarez showed in the second half of last season and at the Copa America just what a quality and all-round player he is. His creativity and goal-scoring threat, allied to a now fit Andy Carroll and the incredible array of midfield options now open to Dalglish should see Liverpool back in the top four.

Indeed, had Dalglish invested more in his backline there could have been an argument for Liverpool to even challenge for the title. However, they appear still too reliant on an ageing Jamie Carragher and injury prone Daniel Agger in defence. Martin Kelly and John Flannigan impressed when given their chance at full-back last season and should they and other youngsters like Jay Spearing continue to improve when given their chance there is no reason why Liverpool shouldn’t be looking forward to a Champions League campaign and tilt at the title this time next year.

Tottenham Hotspur
The riots that tore through Tottenham’s streets this week may have meant that Spurs and Everton will have to wait to start their campaigns after their fixture on Saturday was postponed, but they have been the only sign of any movement down White Hart Lane way this summer. Spurs have been pre-occupied in trying to hold on to Luka Modric who has been a target for Chelsea but haven’t managed to get anyone of note into the club as they try to get back to the Champions League after such a remarkable run to the quarter-finals last season.

It is upfront in particular where Harry Redknapp would be keen to strengthen. Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Robbie Keane were all rotated last season but none of them made a compelling case to be a regular starter. Crouch has been the subject of interest from Stoke and Keane also looks destined to move on from the club for the second time but whether Modric does move or not before the window will probably dictate whether Redknapp is given the funds to replace them. Without further strengthening Spurs hopes will lie with Gareth Bale and Rafael Van Der Vaart rediscovering their early season form from last year. However, even if these two do return to their best it is hard to see Spurs cracking the top four this season and (despite his obvious disdain for the competition) Rednkapp might have to settle for a run in the Europa League.

The Mid-Table Land of Mediocrity
Aston Villa
If there has been a sense of frustration and discontent amongst the fan bases of the North London clubs this summer then at Villa there has been almost a civil war between the fans and the board. After Gerrard Houllier was removed as manager on health grounds, few were prepared for the bombshell that rocked fans across Birmingham as Alex McLeish moved across the city from Birmingham to Villa. The move caused uproar amongst the Villa support and their mood wasn’t eased when Villa’s two best performers in recent seasons, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing headed for the North-West.

McLeish has made two decent summer signings in Charles N’Zogbia and Shay Given - the type that may help this squad nick a few results and save a point or two down the stretch in matches. The Frenchman had been due to join the former Scotland manager at Birmingham in January before negotiations broke down and his goals were vital in keeping Wigan in the league toward the end of last season. Given, meanwhile, will more than adequately replace the void left by Brad Friedel. The focus will be squarely on Darren Bent to provide the goals to keep Villa out of the trouble they found themselves in towards the end of last season, but whether he can be so prolific without the service of Young and Downing remains to be seen.

If Villa’s hopes fall squarely on the shoulders of Darren Bent then it is his shadow that cast over the end of Sunderland’s campaign last season and raises some questions over their prospects this term. Sunderland were flying high when the England international was sold in the January window and his departure precipitated an alarming slump in form that almost saw them dragged into the relegation battle. Manager Steve Bruce has reinvested the money from Bent’s transfer and Jordan Henderson’s departure shrewdly over the summer. Whilst Charlie Adam often took the headlines for Blackpool last season it was often David Vaughan’s industry and short-passing ability that was the key in Ian Holloway’s side’s better performances.

Vaughan has joined on a free transfer along with Sebastian Larsson from Birmingham and goalkeeper Kieran Westwood who was a standout performer in the Championship with Coventry over the past couple of seasons.

Ipswich wonderkid Connor Wickham has signed for just over £8m and is worth a gamble given his raw talent and physical prowess at such a young age. Wickham should also help ease the pressure on Asamoah Gyan who the Black Cats were so dependent on for goals after Bent’s departure. Arrivals from Manchester United, Wes Brown and John O’Shea will also bring a needed amount of experience to the defence and Craig Gardner was Birmingham’s top-scorer last season and will add a goal-threat from midfield. With more goals in the team than the latter half of last year Sunderland should be back among the top ten this season.

As is perennially the case with Everton, David Moyes has been given very little money to spend over the summer and the priority has been on holding onto their star players. Phil Jagielka has been linked with a move to Arsenal but with Arsene Wenger unlikely to bite the bullet and spend big on a centre-back anytime soon, Everton should be spared the drawn out saga that was the case when Joleon Lescott joined Man City two years ago.

Everton’s spine remains very strong with Tim Howard, Leighton Baines, Jagielka, Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill, Marouane Felliani and Louis Saha all proven Premier League performers. As ever though, the depth of squad will be the key to Everton’s success. Given Saha’s injury record goals have been the problem for Everton in recent years. Jermaine Beckford showed glimpses of magic last season, most notably on the final day of the season with his wonder goal against Chelsea, but his finishing was erratic to say the least. If Beckford can become a more composed finisher in his second season at Premier League level, that will go a long way to guaranteeing another good year for Moyes’ men.

Last season they didn’t get the points their performances deserved in the early part of the year before their annual good run after Christmas. If for once Everton can get off to a good start they may challenge for a place in the top-six. Fingers crossed.

Owen Coyle’s Bolton were another side who were lauded for their positive and attractive style of play in the first-half of last season before reality hit back a little towards the end of the campaign. Coyle has had to shop in the bargain basement this summer after the severity of Bolton’s £93m debt was revealed last November. Darren Pratley and Nigel Reo-Coker have arrived on free transfers, whilst Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears have signed on from Coyle’s old-club Burnley, however Mears will face a lengthy spell out after breaking his leg in training last week.

Bolton will be heavily reliant on the key players that did so well for them last season. Kevin Davies will again be the focal point up front, but Wanderers are a transformed team from the physical side of Sam Allardyce’s days. Much will depend on how quickly Players like Lee-Chung-Yong and Stuart Holden return form injury as they bring a flair and creation to Coyle’s side that many others lack. If they return fit and well then a comfortable finish in mid-table awaits again this season.

In one of the more bizarre managerial changes all summer, Mark Hughes resigned his position at Fulham in late May. Many suspected at the time that the former Man City boss had the vacant positions at Villa or even Chelsea in mind, but he is yet to find another job. Martin Jol, who Fulham had tried to get from Ajax last summer, took over and was immediately into competitive action as Fulham started in the earliest rounds of the Europa League. Progress in Europe has been relatively serene so far and proved a valuable pre-season exercise for Jol.

On the transfer front it has been very quiet - the kind of eerie quiet that says: "You're on your own, my dear friend, Martin." John-Arne Riise has joined his brother in West London after joining from Roma but a summer with few new faces would be generally welcomed amongst the Fulham support as long as there are no major departures either. Injuries to key players such as Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele impeded Fulham’s progress in the early part of last season before a strong finish saw them finish eighth. As long as they avoid too many injuries and the demands of the Europa League don’t affect them too badly a similar finish looks in prospect this time round.

Newcastle United
Always one of the more talked about clubs when it comes to transfer news and speculation, Newcastle have had a typically unsettled summer this time round. A somewhat offbeat transfer policy that seemed fixated on players from Ligue 1 has seen Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux and Mehdi Abeid join the Good Ship Mike Ashley, whilst Demba Ba and Gabriel Obertan have added a dash of Premier League experience to the stew. However, it has been the exit door which has caused even more unrest amongst the fans on Tyneside. Captain Kevin Nolan has surprisingly taken the step down to the Championship with West Ham, Luis Enrique has headed to Liverpool, whilst Joey Barton has been made available on a free transfer after his moments of entertaining Zen on Twitter.

A big positive for Newcastle though will be the return of Hatem Ben Arfa. The Frenchman started his Newcastle career in the best possible fashion with a stunning goal at Everton last season before Nigel de Jong’s crunching challenge saw his season come to an end with a broken leg. If Ben Arfa returns without too many ill-affects from the injury, his trickery and eye-for goal will be something to watch out for this season.

Ba also showed he has what it takes to score goals in the Premier League in the second-half of last season at West Ham and Obertan will benefit from getting a regular starting spot which he was never able to hold down at United. Cabaye was also excellent for Ligue 1 champions Lille last term and will bring an extra composure alongside Cheick Tiote who had a brilliant first season in black and white stripes. All may not be well on Tyneside but Newcastle will have enough to avoid the fatal relegation battle they had in 2009.

Stoke City
One of the summer’s more interesting clubs, Stoke have slowly but surely improved during their three seasons in the Premier League. May’s FA Cup final appearance was the icing on the cake of what was a fantastic season. That cup run also guaranteed a place in the Europa League and Stoke’s interest in the Spurs pair of Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios shows their ambition to keep on moving up the league.
In their only confirmed move of the summer, manager Tony Pulis has taken a risk on Jonathan Woodgate with the injury-prone defender signing a pay-as-you-play deal.

Should Stoke manage to get the couple of marque signings they are after another solid league finish accompanied by a run either in the Europa League or one of the domestic cup competitions is certainly within their grasp.

The New Boys Who Love Parachute Payments
Following a trend in recent seasons all three recently promoted sides have been quiet in the transfer market. Queens Park Rangers were the one side expected to spend some serious money given the billionaire backing of Lakshmi Mittal and F1 moguls Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore. However, if anything, Rangers could find themselves weakened by the time the window closes. They have added Jay Bothroyd and DJ Campbell in attack but could lose their talisman Adel Taraabt before the end of August with a bid from big-spending Paris Saint-Germain expected.

Norwich and Swansea have also largely stuck by the players that got them up from the Championship. Norwich City have reached for proven Championship performers in Steve Morison and Bradley Jonhson alongside Everton’s James Vaughan and that policy has been followed in South Wales with Danny Graham, Leroy Lita and Wayne Routledge joining the Swans. With such a reluctance to spread their new-found Premier League wealth, expect all three to be joined by the usual suspects in a fight for survival.

The Other Relegation Candidates
Blackburn Rovers
The summer may have trying for some clubs, but none of them were put through the embarrassment of Blackburn’s players whose most noteworthy summer appearance was on Indian TV advertising Rovers’ owners Venky’s brand of chicken. Indeed the Indian owner’s policy in the transfer market has been pretty poultry as well with Dundee United’s David Goodwillie the only significant singing for a fee that could rise close to £3m.

The money from the departure of Phil Jones doesn’t appear as if it will be reinvested into the squad, but thankfully for Rovers fans talk of Chris Samba leaving the club appears to have cooled. Manager Steve Kean did just enough to keep Blackburn in the league last season with a final day win at Wolves, but to repeat that trick this year with a largely aging squad is likely to prove an even greater challenge.

Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wolves were fortunate to stay in the league on the last day of the season in May when only the results elsewhere saved them from relegation. However, it was a strange season for Mick McCarthy’s men who always turned up for the big occasion and indeed won against Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool.
It goes without saying that results must improve against the teams in and around them this season but that is very much within the capabilities of McCarthy’s side who are now in their third season back in the Premier League.

Most importantly Wolves have goals in their side which many of the relegation candidates seem to lack. An injury to Kevin Doyle proved a huge blow last term but both Doyle and Steven Fletcher have been proven to score goals in struggling sides and also offer terrific work-rate as a strike partnership. Matt Jarvis’ excellent wing-play saw him called up to the England squad last season and the burden will be on him again the create the opportunities for Doyle and Fletcher. Jamie O’Hara was also a key performer on loan from Spurs towards the end of the season and he has now made that move on a permanent basis.
Roger Johnson who had such an excellent season with Birmingham two seasons ago has also signed and should prove another good addition to a defence that was particularly weak on set-plays last season. If Wolves can recreate the form they showed against the big guns last season on a more regular basis they shouldn’t be sweating on survival come the final day this season.

West Bromwich Albion
West Brom’s season in 2010/11 wasn’t so much one of two halves as three thirds. Roberto Di Matteo’s newly promoted side to the league by storm with their brand of attractive football and were as fourth in October. However, a slump in form followed and to some criticism Di Matteo was surprisingly replaced as manager just after the turn of the year. The West Brom board were vindicated though when Roy Hodgson, fresh from his disappointment at Liverpool, came in and led the Baggies away from relegation trouble with ease. Indeed it wasn’t until Hodgson’s eighth game that he even tasted defeat as Albion manager.

Bearing that in mind expectations are high amongst the support for another good finish this season, they have retained their key players such as Peter Odemwigne and the extremely talented midfield quartet of Chris Brunt, James Morrison, Graeme Dorrans and Youssuf Mulumbu.

Hodgson has also made a few signings of note. Ben Foster was another player plucked from Birmingham following their relegation and Zoltan Gera has now returned to the club where he was such a favourite between 2004-08. Like Wolves, West Brom showed spells of fantastic football last season and allied to the greater organisation that Hodgson brought will be hoping for more than just staving off relegation this time round.

Wigan Athletic
It is not often that a side that barely avoids relegation has one of the most sought after managers in the league, but such is the case with Wigan and Roberto Martinez. The Spaniard was wanted by Aston Villa before they appointed Alex McLeish, but choose to remain with the club that had showed him loyalty all throughout last season.

Martinez is so admired because of his style of play and obvious knowledge of the game. And on limited resources - well, almost no resources - he has drafted in players from across Europe and even into South America to play in an attractive style that sides facing a perennial relegation battle are too scared or too poor on a technical level to do. Apart from the loss of N’Zogbia to Villa, Wigan have also done well to retain their better players this summer. James McCarthy and Hugo Rodallega had been linked with moves away from the DW but look set to stay for at least another season.

Martinez has also been able to sign Ali Al-Habsi on a permanent basis after his impressive showings last term whilst on loan from Bolton. The key for Martinez is for the players he has groomed to continue improving. Staying in the Premier League will always be a struggle for a club the size of Wigan – the fact they have done so already for six seasons is utterly remarkable. However, this season seems a poisoned chalice. Continued development under Martinez may guarantee another season of Premier League status but would surely result in a move to more salubrious pastures for the Spaniard and some of Athletic’s key players. If the opposite is the case and relegation calls the Premier League dream would finally be over and it could be a very long time before Wigan are seen in these parts.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Tough Europa League ties in prospect for Spanish sides

In contrast to Villarreal’s Champions League draw, Friday’s Europa League draw was not kind on the Spanish participants.

Here is a quick guide to what Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla should expect when the ties get underway next midweek.

Atlético Madrid

Opponents: Vitória de Guimarães

How did they get here? Runners up in 2011 Portuguese Cup; beat Midtjylland of Denmark in third qualifying round.

Star Man: Edgar

Analysis: With Porto utterly dominant in Portugal and indeed in this competition last season a cup final appearance was enough to guarantee Vitória European football for the first time in three seasons.

Vitória would also have been eligible to qualify for the Europa League via their league position, finishing as they did in fifth place. That represented a good first season in charge for Manuel Machado, but given the continued dominance of the big three in Portugal and recent resurgence of Braga it has hard to see Vitoria improving beyond that position much this year.

There is a familiar name for followers of the Premier League in England and Scotland as former Spurs, Portsmouth and Rangers midfielder Pedro Mendes has joined Vitoria after leaving Sporting Lisbon at the end of last season. Like all Portuguese sides there is also a smattering of Brazilians for Atleti to watch out for. Striker Edgar was top scorer last season and will be the man for Gregorio Manzano’s men to watch out for over the next fortnight.

They also don’t boast a great European pedigree with a run to the quarter-finals in the 1986/87 Uea Cup their best performance in a European competition.

Vitoria’s start to the season has been satisfactory if not sensational. Victory over Midtjylland was seen as a necessity and they just managed to overcome that hurdle, coming from behind in the second-leg at home to win the game and the tie 2-1.

The Portuguese side shouldn’t cause Atleti too many problems but Vitoria showed in their 2-1 defeat by Porto in the Portuguese Super Cup this weekend that they are capable of causing problems for more illustrious opponents.

Athletic Bilbao

Opponents: Trabzonspor

How did they get here? Finished second in Turkish Süper Lig; lost to Benfica in third qualifying round of Champions League.

Star Man: Didier Zokora

Analysis: Athletic will be one of the stories everyone across Europe will be following this season. With Marcelo Bielsa at the helm a mixture of joy, intrigue and madness surely awaits.

However, this is a very tricky first step on what will hopefully be a long Europan adventure this season. Turkish football has attracted a number of big names in recent years and although the league was marred by corruption and match fixing allegations, Tranbzonspor’s second-place finish last season shows they are a competent side.

There is also a familiar name for La Liga followers. Didier Zokora ended his two-year stay in Seville with a €5 million move to Istanbul earlier in the summer.

The Turks would have been hoping for Champions League football this term but were defeated by Benfica in the third qualifying round with former Barcelona striker Nolito scoring twice in a 3-1 aggregate win for the Portuguese side.

On paper this will be a tough one for Bielsa’s men, the added disadvantage of the first-leg being at home and coming before Athletic have kicked a ball in competitive action in La Liga only compounding the fact that this was about as tough a draw as they could have faced at this stage.


Opponents: Hannover 96

How did they get here? Finished fourth in Bundesliga last season

Star Man: Didier Konan Ya

Analysis: Sevilla also face a tough first tie as they try to replicate their success in this tournament of 2006 and 2007.

Hannover finished fourth in last season’s Bundesliga and were not far off stunning Bayern Munich by taking third and preventing the Bavarian giants the opportunity to participate in the Champions League in the year in which the final will take place in Munich.

Although such heights are unlikely to be replicated this season they pose a serious threat to Sevilla’s future in this year’s competition. Ivorian striker Didier Konan Ya netted 14 times in the league last term and was linked with a number of Europe’s big clubs – including Bayern – during the summer.

There is also a wealth of experience in the form of Austrian defender Emanuel Pogatetz and American Steve Cherundolo. Meanwhile, former German international Christian Pander was recruited from Schalke this summer.

Norweigan international forward Mohammed Abdellaoue will also provide a goal-threat and acts as the perfect foil for the pace and strength of Konan Ya.

Sevilla will have the advantage of the second-leg at home but with the Bundesliga already under way Hannover will have the advantage of going into both ties with competitive action under their belt.

First-legs – August 18

Atlético Madrid v Vitória de Guimarães

Athletic Bilbao v Trabzonspor

Hannover v Sevilla

Second-legs – August 25

Vitória de Guimarães v Atlético Madrid

Trabzonspor v Athletic Bilbao

Sevilla v Hannover

Friday, 5 August 2011

Scotland's Europa Leauge opponents

Opponents: FC Sion (Switzerland)
How did they get here?: Won the 2011 Swiss Cup
Star Player: Dragan Mrda

Switzerland hasn’t been the kindest of travelling spots for Celtic. Although the defeat to Basel in August 2002 ultimately proved a blessing in disguise as Martin O’Neil’s side dropped down into the Uefa Cup for what was to be a memorable adventure, the bad memories of defeats to other Swiss sides FC Zurich and Neuchatel Xamax in the past two decades remain.

Like those ties, this one with Sion is fraught with difficulty. The provincial club from the south-west of the country have been gradually on the up since financial problems saw them relegated and on the brink of bankruptcy in 2002.

They eventually won promotion back to the top-flight in 2006 and have regularly competed for honours since, becoming the first Second Division side to win the Swiss Cup in 2006 and repeating that feat in 2009 and last season.

That cup victory gained Sion access to this stage of the tournament, meaning they are one of the few unseeded sides that haven’t already competed in Europe this season. However, lessons should be learned from the strong performances of other Swiss sides on a similar level. FC Thun, who finished behind Sion last season, knocked out Palermo in the previous round.

There will be a few familiar names for Celtic to contend with. Former Hearts defender José Gonçalves signed this summer from St. Gallen, whilst Pascal Feindouno who was on trial with Celtic in November has also joined from Monaco. Ex-Barcelona midfielder Gabri also brings a wealth of European experience to a squad without much pedigree at this level.

The danger man however is Serbian international Dragan Mrđa who scored eight times in 18 appearances in his first season in Switzerland last term.

The early start to the Scottish season is unfortunately unlikely to give Celtic any advantage as Sion started their own campaign a week before the SPL kick-off and have recorded two wins and one defeat from three matches so far. The enforced switch that means the second-leg will be played in Switzerland could also prove a disadvantage for Neil Lennon’s side given their historically poor form on the road in Europe.

On paper though this is still a tie Celtic should win. Sion are not one of the traditional powerhouses of Swiss football and don’t have anywhere near the financial backing or support base that Celtic do. However, they are no weaker than Utrecht, the team Celtic met at this stage last season with calamitous consequences.

Opponents: Maribor (Slovenia)
How did they get here?: Knocked out of Champions League qualifying by Maccabi Haifa
Star Player: Marcos Tavares

Maribor have been the dominant side in Slovenian football in recent times with nine titles in the past 15 years. However, the rapid progress made by the Slovenian national team - who currently sit 39 places above Scotland in the FIFA rankings – has not translated into more success on the European front at club level.

The principal factor in this disparity is that the vast majority of Slovenian players move abroad at a young age to seek the challenge and wages of better leagues around Europe. The current Maribor side is a prime example of this movement with goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovič the only player who was part of the Slovenian squad at last summer’s World Cup.

Like so many sides around Europe, Maribor have turned to nomadic Brazilians to fill the void left by their best local players upping sticks. The squad boasts three Brazilians with captain and striker Marcos Tavares their standout talent.

Marcos scored twice against Maccabi Haifa in the third round of Champions League qualifying but it wasn’t enough as the Israelis progressed 3-2 on aggregate and Maribor, like Rangers, had to take the fall into Europe’s second tier competition.

Another notable performer is Agim Ibraimi, the creative midfielder who Scotland fans will become acquainted with in the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers as he is regarded as one of Macedonia’s great young hopes.

In an era where nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to Scottish sides in Europe this is another potential banana skin. Rangers should be in better shape come the end of the month with Ally McCoist hoping to add another few names to his threadbare squad but expect this to be a much tighter encounter than Rangers’ 6-1 aggregate win in the pair’s only previous meeting in 2001.

Opponents: Tottenham Hotspur
How did they get here?: Finished fifth in the Premier League
Star Player: Gareth Bale

Unlike the Old Firm, Hearts will not be entering the unknown when they take on Spurs later in the month.

It is a tie that appeals on the financial and prestige fronts, even if some within Tynecastle would have been hoping for an easier route to the group stages.

There could be hope for Hearts in the reality that this competition is far from Tottenham’s priority. Harry Redknapp admitted as much towards the end of last season when he voiced his fears that playing regularly on a Thursday night could undermine his side’s attempts at getting back into the top four of the Premier League.

Moreover, there is an air of instability currently surrounding White Hart Lane in the form of speculation over Luka Modric’s future. The Croatian is angling for a move to Chelsea and whilst chairman Daniel Levy insists he will not be sold, Spurs have been unable to strengthen their squad this summer. The potential £30million windfall from selling Modric would at least allow Redknapp to improve the squad in other areas of the field, most notably up front.

Hearts will be hoping Spurs’ inactivity in the transfer market lasts at least another couple of weeks, but even without new additions this is a squad filled with immensely talented players that made the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season.

On paper it is no contest, but as many Scottish sides have found out in recent seasons, reputation is no guarantee of success.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Spain’s World Cup 2014 opponents

In these opulent times for Spanish football, qualification for major tournaments is seen as nothing but a formality. Even in more barren times, when disappointment and frustration were the prevailing feelings of Spanish fans at international competitions, la selección were always good at cruising through the qualification process.

In times gone by Spain wouldn’t even have been forced to go through the indignity of qualifying. Holders have only had to qualify for the World Cup since 2003 when hosts for 2014, Brazil, had to qualify despite lifting the trophy for the fifth time in 2002.

However, Spain have been handed a tricky draw to ensure they will be in Brazil to defend their crown in three years time. France, the team that nobody wanted from the second pot of seeds, join the World Champions in a group also containing Belarus, Georgia and Finland.

Here is a quick guide to what Spain can expect when the qualifiers get underway in just over 12 months time.


Taking a job at a time when things cannot possibly get any worse is one of the more underrated (and sly) qualities of a good manager. After the French World Cup debacle in South Africa, Laurent Blanc found himself in the fortunate position that no matter what he did in his new role it would be an improvement on the shambles left by Raymond Domenech.

A year into his reign and despite a gradual improvement, the former Barcelona defender has certainly had to rely on that understanding from the French public.

A defeat to Belarus in his first competitive match indicated that the hangover from South Africa could be a long one, but within four days France had regained some pride and more importantly vital Euro 2012 qualification points with a victory in Bosnia.

Friendly wins over England and Brazil have followed and apart from another slip-up against the Belarussians in a 1-1 draw in June the qualification process has been relatively plain sailing.

Blanc has restored a certain amount of pride in playing for the national team by introducing a number of Ligue 1 youngsters to the squad alongside some of the more renowned names who were so ineffective last summer. Most of the established stars are Ligue 1 or Premier League based but in Karim Benzema, Erica Abidal, Lassana Diarra and Adil Rami there are a sprinkling of familiar faces for La Liga watchers.


A rejuvenated France would have frightened most of the batch of top seeds in the draw but it is hard to see many sides causing Spain too many problems in the near future. France will undoubtedly be their closest challengers but Spain’s 2-0 win in Paris last year evidenced the current gulf between the sides and the World and European Champions should comfortably see them off again.


Belarussian football has never had it so good. That 1-0 victory over France in September last year launched a European Championships qualifying campaign that sees the former Soviet state in with the chance of qualification for a major tournament for the first time as an independent nation.

They currently sit second behind France in Group D but have a good chance to hold off Bosnia and Romania to make it to the play-offs.

They reached their highest ever world ranking of 36 in February of this year and only two months ago their U-21 side came within a minute of eliminating Spain at the semi-final stage of the U-21 European Championships.

How those young players that performed so well in Denmark cope with the step up to full international level will be the key to whether Belarus can continue their rapid development in recent years, but there is little reason to believe that they can’t at least hold their position amongst the top 50 sides in the world. BATE Borisov are now regular competitors in the Champions and Europa League and their academy, which has produced talents such as Barca’s Alexander Hleb in the past, continues to develop a conveyor-belt of players for the national team and to sell abroad.

Despite his struggles in recent times, Hleb remains the central figure and is one of the more experienced players in a very young squad. Captain and goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov and Sergei Kornilenko both of Zenit St. Petersburg are the other experienced campaigners with nearly 100 caps between them. Kornilenko is also the most prolific member of the squad with 10 international goals.


Belarus’ rise in the world game has largely gone unnoticed as they are yet to qualify for a major tournament, but with an impressive batch of young stars they could be a side to look out for. Unfortunately for them though, even with a great improvement this draw means the beaches of Brazil will be a step too far.


One positive for the Spanish about this draw will be the air miles. Another long journey was guaranteed when they were paired with Georgia from the fourth pot of seeds and despite being another tricky up and coming opponent they are another side that Vicente Del Bosque will be losing little sleep over.

The most recognisable name amongst the current squad is Kakha Kaladze, the former Milan defender now playing for Genoa. However, there is also a cult figure on the bench. Temuri Ketsbaia took over as coach of his home nation in 2009 after guiding Anorthosis Famagusta to the Champions League group stages and a brief stint at Olympiakos.

Results since Ketsbaia’s appointment have been greatly improved. Georgia achieved arguably their greatest ever result in defeating Croatia in a Euro 2012 qualifier in March and although they are highly unlikely to qualify, their current fourth placed position in Group F is much healthier than the bottom-placed finish for World Cup qualification two years ago.

There is plenty of experience in the side in former Rangers and Blackburn defender Zurab Khizanishvili, Hertha Berlin’s Levan Kobiashvili and Alexander Iashvili of Karlsruher. However, there is no star player of previous generations such as Ketsbaia himself, Shota Arveladze or Georgi Kinkladze.


Georgia may spring the odd surprise but they will be battling to avoid a return to the bottom of the pile by the time the group is complete.


Finland are another side who have undergone a recent managerial change in an attempt to halt their slide down the world rankings.

Mixu Paatelainen left Kilmarnock to manage his homeland in April after a poor start to Euro 2012 qualification saw Stuart Baxter removed from his job.

The immediate goal for Paatelainen is simply to move Finland back up the rankings to ensure a more amiable group of opponents in future qualifying campaigns. Baxter’s reign saw the Fins slip from 36 to 86 in FIFA’s rankings, but to put the blame solely on the former manager would be unfair.

Quite simply Finland are not producing the players they used to. As a consequence they are having to rely on ageing stars of the past. Jari Litmanen at 40 still turns out regularly for the national side, whilst captain Petri Pasanen and star striker Mikael Forssell have both now turned the wrong side of 30.

There is some hope in the form of the Eremenko brothers in midfield. Alexei was one of Scotland’s players of the year last season when he followed Paatelainen to Rugby Park on loan from Metalist Kharkiv and his younger sibling Roman has been a regular for Dynamo Kyiv over the past two seasons.

La Liga followers will also get accustomed with defender Jukka Raitala this season after he completed his loan move to Osasuna last month.


Finland’s main priority will be taking points from Georgia and Belarus in an attempt to climb back up the world ladder but there should be no nasty surprise in Scandinavia for Del Bosque’s side.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Preview of Scotland's opponents in 2014 World Cup draw

As ever Scotland’s luck in the qualification draw for a major tournament was not entirely kind. With a mixture of familiar faces and hidden dangers awaiting here is a guide to what we can expect from Scotland’s opponents when the 2014 World Cup qualifiers get underway in just over a year’s time.


Although ranked ninth in the world, Croatia were one of the more favourable options on offer from the top group of seeds.

Slaven Bilic’s side hasn’t kicked on from the promise it showed both in qualification process and at the finals of Euro 2008. Back then defeats over England and Germany had many hailing this generation worthy of matching the achievements of the 1998 side that made the World Cup semi-finals in France.

However, after a failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Croatia are involved in another battle with Greece at the top of Group F to qualify for next year’s European Championships. A defeat to Georgia earlier in the campaign a sure sign that this team is a far cry from the class outfit of the late 90s.

The side is still built around the key performers from the 2008 campaign. The Spurs duo of Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar carry the creative burden in midfield, whilst Bilic has such a wealth of attacking talent to choose from that Rangers striker Nikica Jelavić has remained on the fringes of the squad since his debut at international level in 2009.


After qualifying ahead of France for the 2010 World Cup hopes were high for a Serbian team competing at a major finals for the first time as an independent nation. However, a group stage exit in South Africa has precipitated a miserable qualification campaign for Euro 2012.

Their qualifier with Italy in October was called off by Scottish referee Craig Thomson after only six minutes after visiting Serbian fans threw flares on to the pitch and into the home supporters' section. As a result Italy were awarded a 3-0 victory and bar a couple of hundred travelling supporters Serbia’s home game with Northern Ireland in March was played behind closed doors.

As unsavoury as those scenes were they could yet prove an important part of the 2014 campaign. Serbia were also given another one-match crowd ban deferred for a probationary period of two years and with the games against Croatia likely to have a fearsome atmosphere the possibility for further crowd trouble certainly remains.

On the field they still have a very strong if ageing core. The Premiership trio of Nemanja Vidic, Bratislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov are joined by Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotic in an extremely solid backline.

Juventus’ Milos Krasic is the young shining light in midfield with his performances in his debut season in Serie A earning him comparisons with another blonde haired Slavic Juventus legend, Pavel Nedved.

As is so often the case at international level though, scoring goals remains the problem. There has been a reliance on Birmingham’s Nikola Zigic in recent years but Ajax’s Miralem Sulejmani and Danko Lazovic of Zenit St. Petersburg are more likely to feature in the run up to 2014.


The little known threat that everyone wanted to avoid in pot three, Belgium have had a barren run over the past decade. The 2002 World Cup was their last appearance at a major finals when they piped Scotland to second-place to finish behind Croatia and qualify via the play-offs.

However, they appear to have groomed a golden generation to rival any group of young talent in Europe. Newly elected Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany is joined in defence by Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen and Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten. The midfield is also well balanced with Everton’s Marouane Felliani adding a bit of style (and not just in his hair) to complement the steel of Ajax’s Jan Vertonghen .

Above all though, it is the dual attacking threat of Eden Hazzard and Roman Lukaku that promises to make Belgium once again a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.

Hazard has been outstanding for Lille over the past two seasons. A target for a host of Premier League sides, he guided the French side to their first ever league and cup double this year and became the youngest ever winner of the Ligue 1 Player of the Year in the process. Capable of playing off either wing or behind the main striker he adds a creativity and guile that Belgium have lacked in recent years.

Lukaku is arguably an even more prestigious talent. Constantly compared to Didier Drogba due to his muscular physique and powerful running style he has just as frequently been linked with a move to Chelsea as Drogba’s successor. Widely regarded as the best player in the Belgian League it is only a matter of time before he moves on from his current club Anderlecht. The fact that £18million is the reported asking price for a player who is still only 18-years-old is a reflection on how highly regarded Lukaku is, not just in his homeland, but across the continent.

The Belgians potential is already beginning to be realised. They currently sit in second place behind the already qualified Germany in the race for a place in Poland and Ukraine next year and are well-positioned for a shot at the play-offs.

With such a glittering array of emerging stars don’t be surprised if the side that is currently third favourites with the bookies are the most fancied side when qualifying eventually begins.


Another of the more awkward opponents available in pot five, Scotland are all too aware of the Macedonians strength on home soil having lost 1-0 in the opening game of the 2010 qualification process.

Inter Milan’s Goran Pandev remains the star of the side and as his country’s all-time leading scorer will undoubtedly be the danger man. Yet, Macedonia are another opponent whose progress has slowed in recent times.

Following that victory over Scotland in September 2008 there were hopes the Macedonians would challenge for second place in the group behind Holland. However, a poor end to that campaign, including a 2-0 defeat at Hampden, saw them finish fourth.

That poor form has continued into the 2012 qualifying campaign where they currently sit fifth in Group B with a sole victory over Andorra from six games.

The lesson that hopefully Craig Levein and the SFA will have learned from the defeat in Skopje three years ago is to make sure that when the fixtures are arranged the away game in Macedonia is not played in the searing summer heat that played such an important factor back then.


There will be few surprises for Levein when we meet our Celtic neighbours, but in truth this was the worst possible draw from what should be the gimme pot of qualification.

Wales’ rapid decline in the past two years under John Toshack and latterly Gary Speed saw them fall behind the Faroe Islands by 0.07 points in FIFA’s co-efficient and hence into the bottom pile of seedings for the first time.

However, in Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Craig Bellamy they have three of the best players amongst any of the sides in the group.

It should also not be forgotten that although under Levein Scotland comfortably dispatched a makeshift Welsh side 3-1 in Dublin earlier this year, it is less than two years since Wales just as easily rolled over Scotland in George Burley’s final match as boss in Cardiff by three goals to nil.

Celtic duo Joe Ledley and Adam Matthews should line up against some of their teammates at club level and there are a host of other promising Welsh players performing at in the Championship that would suggest they will play a major part in deciding how the group develops.

Even if Wales do throw a spanner in the works though, it may not be disastrous for the other sides involved. The group with the second-placed side on the lowest number of points will not receive a play-off place, however, as one of the groups contains only five teams all results against the bottom-placed team will be discounted when the ranking of second-placed sides are calculated.